Westward Ho!

I’ve realised that I’ve got a thing about the west. Not ‘the west’ as in globally, but I appear to gravitate west in all things.

I live in West Worthing in West Sussex and I walk in a westerly direction every morning. To go east doesn’t feel quite right, although I walk back in an easterly direction. I walk east in the evenings in order to walk back west and enjoy the sunset.

I’ve noticed that on the way out in the mornings, going west, I feel creative, imaginative, hopeful and dreamlike. Coming back in an easterly direction I am facing the reality of the day. I start to rush knowing I need to get back to ‘my desk’ (aka the kitchen table) and my brain starts to fill with my ‘to-do’ list.

It’s happened with holiday destinations over the years. I favour west coasts – often battered, dramatic, elemental – over east-facing ones: smooth, calm, unremarkable (I know – not all east coasts…). I’ve visited New Zealand and pretty much stayed only on the west coast, I’ve been to the west coast of Ireland many many times but never Dublin. I’ve visited the west coast of Costa Rica twice, driven the west-facing Skeleton Coast in Namibia and have lived on the west coast of India.

When I’m going west, I feel like I could just keep travelling, keep moving over the horizon, but when I’m travelling back in an easterly direction it feels like I’m on a return journey. I wonder what it is that drives me west so much. Is it something to do with me being left-handed, and therefore my brain veers left when faced with its internal north? Is it because I grew up on the north-west Wales coast? I’ve no idea, I just know it’s a thing that I do. It’s my internal compass. Even when I moved to London I went to university in the south west, later lived in the north west, and in between forayed into Buckinghamshire, to the west of London. When I moved to Brighton in the ’90s, I quickly moved west into Hove.

It simply feels ‘off’ to me in the east of anywhere. I can’t really put my finger on why. I can only stay for about an hour in East London before I want to go back west. Once, I was on a date watching a really bad comedian in an East End hipster bar and he starting making fun of me in the audience because I ‘looked posh’ (I was wearing a fake-fur jacket). Really, he didn’t like it because I wasn’t laughing. When I got up to leave, he said, “Are you going back west to the poshos?” “Yep,” I said in front of everyone. “Get me out of here.”

This week in West Sussex has seen some high winds buffeting the coast. They’re southwesterlies and they create, it seems, the biggest waves here. I’ve been watching the kite surfers out west – and out in force since lockdown rules allowed them out – and it’s a real delight to watch grown men (and some women) whoop with joy as the wind carries them high above the waves. I’ve seen videos of people jumping over the pier so it’s a thing here. God I wish I could join them. As I watch, I imagine myself skimming the waves, lit by the bright spring sunshine, grinning as the wind takes me. Having not long learned to swim, it’s probably not something I should leap into but I confess I’m tempted.

Every morning that I walk west, I dream of just carrying on going on the coastal path, all the way to Cornwall. I thing of Raynor Winn’s Salt Path and the epic journey she and her husband did around the south-west coastal path and wonder if I could just do that. Me and a tent. Maybe a small dog in tow. I dream of owning a small white cottage in a west Wales coastal village, where I can see the sea from my desk and walk in the wind every day. I dream of hearing curlews at dawn, just like Dylan Thomas did.

For the first time, some of these dreams seem attainable. Maybe not right now, but they’re within reach.

One thing I do know, I belong in the west.

Seaside Stories

As I’ve been walking the coastline here every day for my lockdown exercise, between Worthing and Ferring, I’ve been chatting to a few people along the way. It seems that the lockdown has made us all a little bit more open to talking to other people, at a safe distance, of course.

Fish for sale!

For me, it started with ‘fish guy’ – I still don’t know what his name is, but he has a small shack on the seafront where he sells fish every day. He started in about week two of lockdown, and had everyone queuing two metres away. I got chatting to him one day when I was buying some fish-pie mix for my landpeople (I’m a lodger in a family home) and asked him how business was. “My business is about 70% hotels, restaurants and pubs,” he said grimly, “but I’d rather be here, outside, eating a packet of crisps in the fresh air.”

In ensuing conversations I’ve asked him about his boat, which goes out every day from Shoreham, and his business, which he runs with a partner, and his dad (I think). He has good weather forecasting equipment so I’ve taken to asking him about the forecast each week too. I quite like that he calls me ‘honey’ – it started as ‘love’ – sometimes a woman needs a ‘honey’.

Sea Lane Cafe

I’ve also chatted to Pete, who runs Sea Lane Cafe in Goring with his brother. He opened tentatively a few weeks ago, to sell takeaway teas, coffees and the best scones I’ve ever tasted. He also has a fantastic two-metre system going on in the cafe where people come in one door and out of another, all maintaining a safe distance. He was in Thailand when COVID came in – he seems shellshocked by the escalation of it all, but I am so grateful that he has opened. I know he’s come in for a lot of flack for it online but anyone who goes there can see he is taking all the health and safety measures seriously. The much-awaited Bluebird cafe in Ferring opens its doors for takeaways tomorrow – I can’t wait…

Her name was Lola

One of my best chats was with ‘birdwatching man’ who sat with his chihuahua Lola and a large telescope on the WW2 pillbox near Ferring one day. I asked him what he was looking for and he reeled off a list of seabirds I can’t quite remember. I asked him what the best thing he’d ever seen was. “An albatross,” he said. “We tracked it all the way along the coast.”

My friend Paula has had a seagull who appeared to be talking to her through her window on a number of occasions, tapping the glass with his beak. Bird experts tell us that it’s a territorial thing. He is likely to be talking to what he sees as the opposition – himself – and telling him to move along!

Paula’s seagull

I’ve started to see the same people early in the mornings, doing their exercise at the same time as me, either down on the sands at low tide or up on the coastal path at high tide. I wonder if we’ll all carry on saying ‘hello’ to each other every day after all this is over… I do hope so. I wonder if they look at me and think, “Oh there’s flask-of-tea woman” as I go past, as I have similarly labelled them with obvious characteristics, oftentimes by their dogs.

I see Nordic the dog on a regular basis

I defy anyone to show me something more joyous than dogs at low tide. They are careering round the sands away from their owners and I love hearing grown men shouting, “Mabel!” at the tops of their voices. The dogs never listen. They often approach me to say hello, and I can see they’re wondering why I don’t bend down to stroke them.

Nerys the dog here at my new home won’t come with me on my walks. We’ve tried two or three times to get her beyond the end of the road with me but she pulls us back home each time. My landlady says she has separation anxiety.

Nerys doesn’t want to walk with me 😥

Most unexpectedly, my main animal relationship is now with Bob the cat. He’s the one waking me up with his mewing (his food tray is outside my room), he’s the one curling up on my bed (he’s there right now) and he’s the one stretching out on my yoga mat when I’m trying to teach or practice. Who knew a cat would be the affectionate one between a cat and a dog?

Bobbity

You are the Light

I’m writing on day fourteen of the UK’s coronavirus lockdown, which is also day fifteen of my going through four airports (Goa, Mumbai, Dubai, Gatwick) to get back to here.

I’m still in awe of the kindness shown to me by my landlady and landlord (landpeople?) who welcomed me immediately into their home, trusting that I would have avoided the virus on my trip back. We’d never met each other and yet now it seems I’ve been living here for months, in a good way. I will never ever forget their kindness for as long as I live.

So far I’ve had no symptoms but I am one of many people who think they have had the virus already. I think I may have had it a few weeks ago, when I felt generally run-down and like I was going to come down with something, and I had a strange pain in my lower right ribs which prevented me from taking a full breath. I thought it was muscular at the time but now I’m rethinking it. I think it’s already been through me. In India.

Similarly, the family I’m staying with think they had in on a French skiing holiday, where all three of them came down with a horrible cough and a fever and were laid up in bed with the ‘flu’. We’ve heard much about the ski resorts being an epicentre of the virus, especially in the early days of the ‘super spreader’ news, so this seems to tally.

All of my friends seem to be split between those who think they’ve had it, based on having at least one of the three key symptoms (dry cough, fever, breathlessness), and those that are still unsure, despite having at least two of them. I’m someone who would be only too happy to say I’ve already had it so I don’t quite understand this uncertainty. Is it a form of denial? Maybe. Maybe it would be too much to think about how many people we’d potentially infected without realising it.

In the wake of my flight from India I’ve been thinking a lot about denial and how much I was in it back then. Thanks to the intervention staged by my friends I finally came to my senses, but I am astonished at the lengths I went to to convince myself and them that staying in Goa would be a good idea. Currently I have a small number of friends doing the same thing to me and I can hear my own voice from two weeks ago in the Agonda bubble. One of the interventionist friends said she almost cried when I was about to get into the taxi to the airport and sent her a message saying I wasn’t sure I was doing the right thing. Thank goodness I carried on.

I’ve actually had to mute all the news from India and social media from Goa specifically because I’m finding it too stressful to look at. I had a twisting feeling in my gut when I was there because it was telling me I had to go and I believe that my gut was right. That feeling returns every time I look at Goan Facebook threads and messages and for my own mental health, I’ve turned them off. I respect friends’ decisions to stay there but that decision wasn’t the right one for me. One of the interventionist friends told me yesterday that it wouldn’t be long before news would be being censored by the Indian government and internet searches restricted. I hadn’t even thought of that and it already appears to be happening.

I’ve actually continued with my Agonda lifestyle here in Worthing – an early morning or evening walk by the sea every day. I am once again enjoying the sunrise, or sunset, but here I am walking in a warm coat and gloves, carrying a flask of hot tea, basking in the cold air hitting my face after so many months of hot air. I was so ready to feel cold – I now know that I spent too long in a hot region and if I ever get the chance to go to India again I’ll spend some time back in much-cooler Rajasthan. I like wrapping up warm and my energy levels are higher in cooler climes. As such, I’m very happy in a sunny-but-cold Worthing.

There are joys to be found during lockdown, whether it’s watching dogs running after tennis balls on the beach (I miss Zimbo), finding stones or paving stones with optimistic messages painted or chalked on them on the seaside benches (no, I don’t touch them), seeing the sun sparkling over wet pebbles by the shoreline, or an unexpected ‘good morning!’ from a passer-by.

There are also sadnesses to witness: street drinkers in the early morning light, putting their world to rights, shouting at each other angrily. I see the same guys every morning and I wonder about the state of the nation’s mental health after a long, rainy winter and when the lockdown is over. There must be a lot of people not coping and I’m almost more worried about that than I am about COVID-19.

I have started, like many yoga teachers, to teach classes on Zoom, which I’m loving. They punctuate the week, for one thing, and they keep my teaching up after Goa. I love teaching beginners, and I think it’s my calling. I’m someone who found it hard to find a way in to yoga, thinking it wasn’t for me, so I can help people at least overcome that first hurdle. I’m gateway yoga, if you like. Message me if you’re interested in taking part.

On my lockdown exercise walk I have a lot of time to think through things and I’ve been musing on how this global event has been the biggest-ever challenge to selfishness the post-war generations have ever seen. For the first time, we’re being asked to think and act on others’ behalf and it’s clear that a lot of people find that concept very hard.

Before I left Goa, a British man told me that he was ‘going to act completely normal’ when he got home and that vulnerable people ‘should just get out more’. Needless to say I am stepping away from people like him in future. This is a Brexiteer who blamed foreigners for scrounging from the UK welfare system who is currently happy enough scrounging from the Indian community who is forced to help him because he is ‘stuck’ (ie, choosing to remain there because it’s cheaper than being in the UK and only opting to fly home if the UK government lay it on for free.)

People show you who they are even on a simple lockdown walk, run or cycle, when they are unwilling to step out of the way or deliberately cough in your direction when you do step out of the way. Even how someone buys something, taking all the stock of an essential rather than what they actually need, is an indicator. Never has it been made more clear who the empaths are and who is simply looking out for themselves. I try to remember to ‘be the change I want to see’ and simply manage my own behaviour but it is hard not to judge such levels of selfishness.

I’ve also found this time has confirmed what I’ve thought for a long time about my ‘loved ones’. It’s always upset me a lot to think that I don’t have any direct loved ones caring about what happens to me, without any husband, children, parents or siblings around (some of those by choice, it has to be admitted). But now I have a clear picture of who was there when the chips were down and I’m glad to have it confirmed. I don’t want to say ‘you know who you are’ but you do. And I’m so glad you’re there.

But here’s to my new family by the sea, with their dog, Nerys, and cat, Bob. I’m so very very grateful.